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Cameron has never looked and sounded more like the heir to Blair. Brexit is his Iraq

Cameron asked the country to solve his party's problems, a huge strategic mistake and a crushing failure of leadership 

Tom Peck
Political Sketch Writer
Tuesday 17 September 2019 08:44 BST
David Cameron: 'Am I sorry about the state the country’s got into? Yes'

David Cameron has had three long years to ruminate on what it was that went so badly wrong with the whole EU referendum thing. And yet, even now, he exudes the air of a man who brought a cake to a coffee morning because no one told him it was in fact a knife fight to which everybody else would be bringing a gun.

ITV’s Tom Bradby is one a very small number of people who have been allowed to read Cameron’s memoirs prior to their release next week. And like everyone else who has done he has come to the same crucial conclusion, which is that, spread over 800 long pages, the chap who led the Remain campaign “comes across as a raging Eurosceptic”.

That, really, is the heart of the matter. That, nice, polite David Cameron thought he could win a nice, polite referendum, in which he could nicely and politely say that the EU isn’t great but ho, hum, life’s not so bad, is it?

And then, to his considerable surprise in roared Michael Gove and Boris Johnson from left field, telling wild lies about Turkey and immigration and £350m a week and suddenly all was lost.

And that, fundamentally, is the story. Over half an hour of conversation, Cameron remained the honest, decent, fundamentally rather likeable chap that he is.

The sort of honest, decent, fundamentally likeable chap that, for a generation or so, was what you had to be to win an election on these honest, decent, fundamentally likeable islands, before everything went so irredeemably mad.

There were gentle attempts at settling scores. Bradby pointed out that in the book Cameron calls Gove and Johnson “ambassadors for the post-truth age”.

But the scores will not be settled, overall. The ledgers can’t be made to match. Cameron has lost, in pyrotechnic fashion, and no number of salty words in a memoir can level the scores.

In his early years, Cameron liked to describe himself as the “heir to Blair” and never has it seemed more true.

To listen to Cameron reason out why he was sorry but not sorry about the referendum, why it was the wrong decision but also the right one, was not merely deja vu, but actively haunting. Like you’d left one of Tony Blair’s many interviews on Iraq on the bedside table overnight and it had auto-downloaded a new operating system. It looks different, it feels different, but essentially it’s still the same.

“Well I’m deeply sorry about all that’s happened, there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think about all the decisions I made and all that has followed,” he said, the “but” limbering up in his larynx like a champion sprinter.

“But when I go back to that decision, that Britain’s position needed to be sorted and we needed a renegotiation and a referendum; I believe that was the right approach.”

Does that, perchance, remind you of anybody? The carefully honed phrases, the same epistemological half confession, structured like its been tested on a hundred bedroom ceilings wide eyed at 2am.

As Cameron made his case that Europe couldn’t just be ignored, that the second you become prime minister, there’s a eurozone crisis, or European banks need bailing out, and you can’t just ignore it, it was, just about, believable, plausible.

But these are afflictions which have always cursed the Tory Party far more than the country. These are perceived slights that Tories feel more acutely than the rest of us.

And, in the end, what he did was to give his party’s problem to the people and ask them to solve it for him, something they, or rather we, could never solve but only make worse.

It was a terrible strategic decision, and a crushing failure of leadership.

Which is why, honest, decent likeable chap though he is, he has been so prematurely expelled from British politics.

Still, it was, at least, a 30-minute long reminder that, not so long ago, you had to at least be able to affect the air of being an honourable person to hold the highest office in the land. The question that remains is whether such a time will come again.

For the time being at least, nothing has seemed further from reality.

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